New Times,
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Why Labour is dropping “levelling up”

The Johnsonian gimmick is finally gone.

By Freddie Hayward

New Labour’s constitutional reforms are arguably its most enduring domestic legacy. Devolved administrations have only been handed more power by the Tories since 2010. And now Keir Starmer has promised to go further with greater devolution across England.

In his “Take back control” speech last year, he promised a new law to boost devolution to England’s mayors. To prove his seriousness – and this first week in power is as much about indicating seriousness as delivering policy, hence the trips to Odesa, Europe and the dawn-to-dusk work ethic – England’s 12 metro mayors were invited to Downing Street this morning to discuss the government’s plans to expand devolution over, for instance, employment support or transport policy.

The mayors, most of whom are Labour, are optimistic. One mayoral source notes that unlike in 1997 when John Prescott, Angela Rayner’s predecessor as secretary for the regions, had to establish Regional Development Agencies, combined authorities are already up and running. “We’re going in with an offer, not an ask,” one said.

On election night, Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham said mayors would be where this cautious government’s radicalism would find an outlet. Burnham is promising to build more than Manchester’s fair share of housing, while asking for greater control over the subsidies for commuter railway lines into Manchester to integrate them into the Bee transport network. Tracy Brabin, the West Yorkshire mayor and chair of the mayor’s bloc, was on message after the meeting, saying: “We stand ready to deliver alongside government as we build a brighter future for all.”

The antagonistic relationship between Boris Johnson’s No 10 and the mayors, which peaked during the pandemic, is gone (for now). So is the phrase “levelling up”, which will be dropped from the department’s name. A Johnsonian gimmick, Labour sources say. Rayner will instead become the Secretary of State of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

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That the phrase has been dropped is fitting. “Levelling up” was always more expansive in its aspiration to close the centuries-long gap between the south-east and the rest of the country than what Labour is promising. This government is less ambitious. Funding will be devolved, not necessarily increased. Northern Powerhouse Rail, the high-speed link across the north, was not in Labour’s manifesto. There is no promise to boost local government spending, despite the desperate state of its finances. Labour will work within its self-imposed fiscal constraints and wait for growth. While Labour might be less ambitious, what it promises is more deliverable.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The Tories will keep losing if they chase Reform]

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